Monday, December 21, 2009

Navigating caves

As if he had been reading my mind, Chgowiz posted about describing caves this Friday. I've been thinking of that subject since I once again started to look closer at dungeons as environments for adventure. Just like city maps, which I have posted about before, I find cave maps hard to use.

One of the things dungeons do, as compared to the wilderness or city, is to contain the adventure and funnel the delvers along a path. There might be forks in that path and total freedom in moving about, but nobody will go off on a tangent you as DM is totally caught out by. Using that picture, a dungeon can be considered a flowchart of the possibilities in that dungeon delve. So, what difference does it make if the dungeon is of carved stone, roughly hewn rock or blue cheese?

I remember when I first read the Dungeoneer's Survival Guide for AD&D1, how the underworld suddenly became much dirtier, wetter and muddier than it was in my mind's eye up until then. While it might be realistic, it's not always desirable. Now a few days after reading what Chgowiz wrote about how he found it hard to describe caves, I wonder what they bring to the table that classic 10' corridors don't. Since I have had a hard time with those irregularly shaped locations myself I think that maybe all that muck might be a reason to use them after all.

The reason I find caves hard to use, is that if you describe a irregularly shaped room it is very hard to give a mental picture that even remotely resembles how that cave looks on the map. Like Chgowiz summarized it, there are a few ways to do it, and the only one that gives a good enough picture to make the nooks and crannies mean anything are when you draw for the players. If there is a set of stone blocks that are significant because there's a secret tunnel behind a wall of mud, you either describe them clearly and give a big honking hint they are significant, or you draw it out. Personally I've drawn the map on the battlemap, but it takes time and is really work that should be done by the players.

Can you tell my mind is split about this? I like to have a naturalistic spellunking experience, but, I grumble about those naturalistic details since they mess things up and take time. If we go back for a second to DSG, I think that maybe the best way to do it is to describe the rooms sketchily and and let the dice and game mechanics do the work, instead of having the player tell me where they tap or seek. The muck and mud can be environmental "dungeon dressing" and maybe that will give it enough solidity to feel real, without too many rules to slow it down. Will I learn to love the caves? Who knows, but I do feel tempted to try to DM S4 The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth which have been gathering dust on my shelf a while now. Nothing but caves. Anyone want to play AD&D?

6 comments:

  1. Andreas said . . .
    "There might be forks in that path and total freedom in moving about, but nobody will go off on a tangent you as DM is totally caught out by."

    You're forgettting one thing, depending on the level of the party's wizards, and the cunning of the players in general, there are still ways to stray 'off the path' even in a tunnel complex set path. Slush Yuck or a few Dwarves with pickaxes for instance.

    I think this was common in the early days of the hobby. So much so in fact that some commerial dungeon even had monsters built in the wall as a nasty little suprise.

    As far as description goes, with caves, I think all that's needed is a bit of set dressing like you say, and vary things with a bit of interesting scenery for the palyers to chew up every so often, large pillars, boulders, stalagtites, etc. I don't think there's a need for absoulute accuraccy. I normally just say it's a tiny, small, large, huge cave, etc.

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  2. I am a big fan of the "describe sketchily, let the skills bring the clues" approach. First, it strongly supports character builds that include those skills (from dwarven stonecunning to thieves with heightened senses to those who choose to be experts in underground exploration). Second, it avoids the "wall of text" problem, where the players have to sit there for ten minutes while the GM drones on about the details (because, honestly, few GM's are very good about making those long descriptions engaging). Finally, it can be an awesome tool to control the spotlight, allowing you to give the plot cookie to a player who hasn't had much to do lately.

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  3. You can always just draw out the cave ahead of time, each "room" whether it holds anything of significance or not, but don't draw it perfectly to scale. Just what an adventurer would scratch out after exploring the place for a while.

    So you hand them the cave drawing and they see some square shapes along one wall and ask about them. You explain those are cut stone blocks. They're naturally curious - they should be - and they investigate.

    This also lets them piece together the caves they come across.

    A better way to do things is to describe it verbally. For this you need to limit the number of features and feature interactions.

    For example, it's okay to have a cave with a waterfall coming out of the wall near the ceiling, and a high ledge opposite it. But if the waterfall is interacting with the ledge at all that's extra complexity. Try to keep the number of features in a cave room down to 3-4 at most. Two features that interact simply count as 3 total. If they interact in a complex way it could count as 4 or 5 features.

    Remember that your players wil have to keep all this in their heads at once, and not all are expert visualizers. (Yet!)

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  4. You're forgettting one thing, depending on the level of the party's wizards, and the cunning of the players in general, there are still ways to stray 'off the path' even in a tunnel complex set path. Slush Yuck or a few Dwarves with pickaxes for instance.

    Well, I guess it's true. But, even that will focus their attention somewhat, which was the main thrust of what I was trying to express.

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  5. Second, it avoids the "wall of text" problem, where the players have to sit there for ten minutes while the GM drones on about the details (because, honestly, few GM's are very good about making those long descriptions engaging).

    Which kind of was what chgowiz and me were both bothered by to begin with. How to do it well and hopefully engaging. Learn to love the dice.

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  6. 1d30,

    Good ideas and nice rule of thumb with 3-4 features. I'll try to remember that.

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